In the ten or so days that I’ve been attending the COP and related events, I have been given two t-shirts, one water bottle, one bag, a raincoat, a handful of postcards and several buttons that mark me as a supporter of different climate-related causes. (It should be noted that most of these objects will go largely unused after the COP is over.) When comparing my booty with those of other members of my delegation, I realized I was way at the lower end of acquisition, with most of them having received many more items. After overcoming my first reaction – I want those things too! – I realized that even the most committed climate change activists are getting the picture at least partially wrong.

Consumption is one of the main drivers of climate change, and it works by coupling individual identity with acquisition of commodities. As the climate Ambassador from South Korea was explaining at a side event on sustainable transportation, in traditionally bike-riding Asian cultures, driving cars has now become a symbol of richness. This example is only one of the many discussed by the literature on the sociology of consumption. We acquire things because they will signal to other people that we can afford them, and that we have the cultural capital to understand and embrace them.

The road to climate change mitigation marks the need for curbing consumption, in particular in the developed world. Consumption reduction not only helps reduce the amount of resources extracted from the Earth and the energy that goes into the manufacturing process, but it also creates a space in which individual lives are less commodified and more open to human interaction. An improvement in public welfare is at the heart of this issue: things can’t make us happy, but relationships might. And in building closer connections, we may be able to communicate our individualities in ways other than the objects we possess.

So here my question is raised: is it possible for active climate change organizations, which spearhead the fight for mitigation and adaptation, to set the example on how a sustainable world would function? Activism is vital in the road to sustainability, and the work done so far has been excellent, but it is far from over. All of us should be paying a little less attention to the color of our shirts, and a little more to the relationships we create along the way.

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